Mental Health Month is celebrated in May here in the United States, but mental health is something we should be talking about all year round. This year’s World Health Day took place on April 7th and focused on the important issue of depression. On this occasion, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a one year campaign titled “Depression: let’s talk”.
Depression and other mental health conditions can, at their worst, lead to suicide. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), suicide “is the second-leading cause of death among adolescent girls” worldwide. The prevalence of both depressive and anxiety disorders is also higher among women than men around the world.
I am one of those women who struggles with mental health. I visited a psychologist for the first time when I was just 8 years old, as my generalized and social anxiety issues began to develop. I am now 23, and anxiety is still something I struggle with on a practically daily-basis, despite now going to therapy and taking medication.
But for most of the 16 years I’ve lived with anxiety, I’ve struggled mostly alone, in silence, without understanding well what was happening in my own brain – a reality unfortunately too common for most people who struggle with some type of mental disorder. The WHO states that even in developed countries, 50% of people who suffer from depression don’t get treatment for their disorder. Governments also lack investment in mental health: just 3% of their budgets worldwide go to mental health services.
A big misconception about mental health issues is that they are strictly in a person’s mind and don’t make them physically sick – but that is far from true. During a panic attack for example, I feel extremely nauseous, I can’t eat even if I’m hungry, my muscles become tense, and I get terrible headaches. Mental health issues are never a person’s choice – they are disorders, and can affect anyone, at any age, anywhere in the world.
Anxiety and depressive disorders are not simply being stressed or sad. They manifest themselves even when life is going well. My worst panic attack ever happened when I was in a car with my parents going on a trip, and my most recent one, when I was riding the same train I’d ridden for months going to work. These episodes can happen even without a logical reason for my body’s reaction, and that’s what makes mental health issues so hard to live with.
Mental health should be prioritized just as much as physical health – after all, isn’t the brain part of our bodies too? It’s a clichéd phrase, but one I’ve learned, the hard way, to be true: self-care isn’t selfish. I’ve spent most of my life avoiding facing my anxiety issues, thinking that if I focused my energy on helping others, I’d be “cured” somehow. Even though I still love helping others, I’ve learned that I can’t do that unless I help myself and allow myself to be helped.
I still have a long road ahead of me learning how to take care of myself, beginning a new therapy, and getting a more definitive diagnosis. But taking this first step of acknowledging that I do have mental health issues that are deeply affecting my life, breaking my silence about it, and reaching out for help is a good place to start the life-long road of recovery.
If you are struggling with mental health issues, especially suicidal thoughts or actions, or know someone who might be, please do not hesitate in reaching out for help. If you live in the United States you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), Mental Health America, and NAMI for help and resources.